In December 1932, the Chicago Bears were set to host the NFL Championship Game against the Portsmouth Spartans, who would later become the Detroit Lions. Because of recent blizzards and concerns about cold gameday temperatures, though, Bears owner George Halas decided to move the game indoors to Chicago Stadium.
The three-year-old venue was not built for football and had just hosted a circus. Needless to say, the championship game that ensued was one of the strangest in league history. It also played a role in a few major rule changes that defined the league’s future decades.
Here’s a transcript of the full story:
Mid-December, 1932. The NFL Championship game between George Halas’ Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth, Ohio Spartans. The Bears were the home team for the title game. But, early in the week, the winds were blowing cold off Lake Michigan, there was already snow on the ground, and the forecast wasn’t good. So, even though the Bears home turf was Wrigley Field, with the NHL Blackhawks out of town and the circus just having left, Halas decided that the championship would take place indoors at three-year-old Chicago Stadium.
Already his Bears had an advantage in that Spartans star Dutch Clark would be absent, back at Colorado College coaching basketball. Halas’ lineup included at least two future Hall of Famers, the “Galloping Ghost” Red Grange and the legendary Bronco Nagurski.
Chicago Statdium already had dirt down on its floor from the circus, aromatic dirt that it was. It was recirculated dirt the stadium kept for all such events and, according to one report, the dirt included parts of elephant tusks, cigar butts, and what had been – uh – left behind by the animals.
But there were some other challenges for the two teams.
The Field could only be 80 yards long, including end zones, because of the arena floor. So 60 yards goal line to goal line and only 45 yards wide, narrower than normal. Goalposts had to be moved to the goal line. The teams agreed there would be no field goal attempts but extra points could be kicked.
So, on December 18, 1932, 11,200 fans came through the turnstiles.
There were some odd situations. One kick hit a Blackhawks advertising sign. Another struck the organist.
Meanwhile, Portsmouth, without the Spartans’ star Clark, had to play a strong defensive game, and it worked. It was scoreless into the fourth quarter. Finally, the Bears broke through. As required by the rules at the time, Nagurski dropped back the necessary five yards behind the line of scrimmage and threw a soft pass to Grange for a touchdown.
The Spartans protested it wasn’t five yards but the officials ruled it was a legal pass. Tiny Engebretsen kicked the extra point through the uprights, into the second balcony, and the Bears added a safety to win 9-0.
In the aftermath of the game, the NFL decided to keep the goalposts on the goal line, and they stayed there for another 41 years. The forward pass only had to be behind the scrimmage line, no longer five yards back. The Spartans returned to Ohio to play in Portsmouth for one more year before moving to Detroit to become the Lions.
As it turned out, the weather forecast was wrong. On game day, the temperature was 20 degrees. 20 degrees above. They probably could have played it outdoors after all.
While Chicago Stadium closed after 65 years, was demolished in 1995, and the site is now a parking lot for the much larger United Center, the Bears are over a century old and winners of nine NFL titles, including their first one ever under a roof, 89 years ago.
-by Doc Emrick